[QODLink]
Opinion

Will Syria's chemical weapons take down Assad - or Obama?

The US president's handling of the Syria crisis may yet prove to be his ultimate downfall.

Last Modified: 07 Sep 2013 22:33
Mark LeVine

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
Email Article
Print Article
Share article
Send Feedback
President Obama convinced congressional leaders to back his plan for attacking Syrian targets [AFP]

 

HIGHLY CLASSIFIED. FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
Dear Mr Assad,

This letter is to inform you that some time in the next two weeks, you will be the subject of a focused, limited and narrow attack by US cruise missiles in response to your recent alleged use of chemical weapons on your own people without our permission.

Here are some helpful hints to help you get through this no doubt uncomfortable episode:
- Send the wives and kids of senior government personnel to Beirut and Paris for a shopping holiday.
- Remove any chemical weapons from the map I have conveniently appended to this letter of potential bombing locations.
- Move in political prisoners to use as human shields and ensure maximum collateral damage and thus publicity value when we do bomb.
- Loudly declare your willingness to attend a UN-sponsored peace conference "under fair conditions", but don't lay them out in any detail. Skype call Bibi if you have any questions on how to do this. The Israelis are, as you know, the world experts in this field.
- Point out to anyone who will listen that, while there's no proof that you were responsible for this attack (even though we both know you did it), the US knowingly provided Saddam Hussein with intelligence while he gassed Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War, and we've not even so much as offered an apology to Iran, never mind to Iraq for the hundreds of thousands of people we killed in a generation of sanctions, invasions and occupation.
- Tell your broker in Beirut to buy stock in Raytheon before the attack is launched; the price is climbing quite nicely as we approach bomb date and there's no reason you shouldn't earn a little something for your trouble.

Hoping the events of the next few weeks aren't too unpleasant,

Sincerely,
Barack Obama
President of the United States of America


Okay, President Obama most likely didn't write a letter like that to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But he might as well have.

Simply put, the entire process by which the president has tried to steer the US towards a bombing campaign reveals such a shocking display of political and diplomatic incompetence - one of the greatest in US history - that he couldn't have done more to aid the Assad regime if he tried.

Unable even to conceive over three years of actually using the full weight of the UN for the purposes it was intended - to stop war - or to lay a proper groundwork for the use of force against Syria when it inevitably crossed the "red line" of large-scale chemical weapon use, the Obama administration, which clearly hasn't wanted any part of military action in Syria, has allowed itself to get behind a ridiculous plan of action that is allowing the likes of Assad's son and Russian President Putin to taunt him like a schoolyard bully when no teachers are in sight.

The mess extends in several directions. The first is the lack of willingness of the Whitehouse to make amends for the chemical weapons-based lies it deployed a decade ago to justify the invasion of Iraq, let alone its own large-scale use of weapons such as White Phosphorus and depleted uranium, the direct support provided to Saddam Hussein for his use of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War - or the even more colossal impact of Washington's use of Agent Orange and napalm in Vietnam.

Had Obama actually owned up for the American misdeeds of the past half century, the US might have a little credibility at the moment. Instead, it's as if he dusted off the script from 2002-03. Even if this time the script is true, it's hard not to imagine Dick Cheney hiding somewhere in the Whitehouse attic pulling the strings.

Second, while the president talks about "international credibility" being on the line, his administration has done absolutely nothing to engage in serious reform of the UN - the legitimate embodiment of the international community - and particularly the Security Council, so that countries such as Russia or China could no longer veto action against murderers such as Assad. The reason, of course, is that this would mean the UN could stop murderers and thieves such as Netanyahu and Peres, not to mention the US, Russia and China, from pursuing all the policies that routinely violate international law. At the same time, Obama has done even less to support real democracy in the Arab world, instead strengthening the hands of dictators and despots the region over.

In this environment, there was really never any way the administration could offer the kind of help to the civil resistance in Syria that might have given them a fighting chance without moving to violence, an arena in which they could only be hopelessly outgunned in the current international environment. Yet neither did it arm the secular opposition early on when it could have made a difference and prevented the inevitable takeover of the resistance by amply funded jihadis. As important, by allowing the UN to remain removed from the equation, Obama has given other great powers, in particular Russia, the ability to challenge the US directly, as Putin has indicated he would do, in response to any military action by the US.

If this wasn't bad enough, not only does the president disregard international law by declaring his willingness to use force without a UN mandate, he also declares that he can use force without Congressional approval, but then goes and seeks it anyway. This possibilities here are all bad. Either the US Congress becomes complicit in launching an attack that is a clear violation of international law, or the president winds up acting in complete isolation to the vast majority of the international community, the US political establishment, and the American people, who oppose the use of force by a wide margin.

What's worse, in the hopes of appeasing critics at home and abroad, the president has promised to make the strikes narrowly focused and limited - that is, meaningless in practical terms. If the president is looking only degrade Syria's chemical weapons capabilities, he's given Assad so much time to prepare that no limited strike would accomplish that goal. If he's hoping, as his new ally Senator John McCain advocates, to use this opportunity to change the balance of power on the ground, a limited strike will be even more useless. And if he strikes harder and longer than he said he would, he will look like a liar - and the Russians will no doubt come to the Syrians' aid with deliveries of advanced weapons systems.

It's worth noting that, during the 1967 war, it was the Soviet Union's secret message to the US that it would become directly involved to protect its client regimes that led President Johnson to pull the Israelis back from conquering even more territory.

The administration's attempts to win the propaganda battle have been equally amateurish. After beginning a unilateral move towards military action before it could be determined who was responsible for the attack, it did not release the evidence it says it has until after its main ally, Britain, had already seen its parliament vote against authorising violence - plunging the "special" US-UK relationship into one of its deepest crises in decades.

Then, when the administration does release evidence, it doesn't in fact release any evidence - only a narrative about what the "secret" evidence shows, and assumes anyone will accept it at face value. In the meantime, it once again delegitimises the work of weapons inspectors, while engaging in a campaign of coordinated leaks about the evidence - rather than merely presenting such in the open - that so confuses and annoys the press corps.

This risible, almost Keystone Cops-esque attempt to manage information and public discourse on Syria has only strengthened another dictator and mass murderer, Russian President Putin (anyone remember the tens of thousands of deaths during the second Chechen War?), who can take the high road of calling for bringing everything to the UN or the G20 precisely because he knows he has the veto power to protect his allies, the Syrian regime.

If there was any silver lining to this absolute foreign policy disaster, it's that the people of the United States and their British counterparts have apparently decided they will no longer back the use of force without a full and open debate. But what good is this if the US government believes it can ignore its own citizens? Key members of the Congressional establishment will back the government, despite widespread public opposition, on the claim that "American credibility" is at stake.

Spotlight
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria

Perhaps the worst part of this whole diplomatic and political fiasco is that the loss of credibility and focus has allowed the one claim Obama has made that remains valid and of utmost importance - that normalising the use of chemical weapons would be an utter disaster for the world community and would wind up seeing it used with increasing frequency by governments, armed groups and terrorists - is left in a shambles. If there's one thing that's certain, we'll all be the worse off for ignoring chemical weapons use.

It's hard to see how Obama's attempt to intervene in the Syrian civil war can produce any kind of successful outcome from either the American or Syrian civilian perspective, if Assad is left still standing with nothing worse than a bloody nose.

And if events play out as it seems they will - a "narrow and limited strike" that rallies people around Assad and shifts focus away from his murderous campaign against his own people - Obama will have succeeded in making the situation even worse for the Syrians on whose behalf he is supposedly striking. Truly, Syria could wind up being one of the worst foreign policy disasters in US history, destroying whatever shred of diplomatic credibility the Obama administration had left.

It's almost enough to make one nostalgic for the days of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld...

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world,  The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. 

His book,  Heavy Metal Islam,  which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.

Follow him on Twitter:  @culturejamming

2005

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source:
Al Jazeera
Email Article
Print Article
Share article
Send Feedback
Topics in this article
People
Country
City
Organisation
Featured on Al Jazeera
An innovative rehabilitation programme offers Danish fighters in Syria an escape route and help without prosecution.
Street tension between radical Muslims and Holland's hard right rises, as Islamic State anxiety grows.
Take an immersive look at the challenges facing the war-torn country as US troops begin their withdrawal.
Ministers and MPs caught on camera sleeping through important speeches have sparked criticism that they are not working.
Featured
< >